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Kate Pullinger thrills to the rise of digital fiction

Kate Pullinger

Filed under: Non-fiction

I sing the body of work electric

In the late 1990s, with the advent of new technology, a different type of literature began to emerge. In the US it became known as ‘electronic literature’ – though this term was never very satisfactory or universally accepted, referring as it did to a multitude of different formats. Whatever we call it, the fact is that the enormous disruptive power of the internet, already rapidly transforming publishing and bookselling, has unleashed a vast range of creative opportunities for writers who are interested in what can happen to text when you place it on a screen.

It’s tricky working in a genre that has no name. Lately, when people ask me what I’ve been working on, I’ve answered ‘digital fiction’ or, occasionally, ‘multimedia fiction’, or even ‘the place where fiction intersects with technology’. By this I mean creating works of fiction that combine text with other forms of media, including images, music, animation, video and games. These works are always collaborative (and occasionally interactive), are usually found online, and often have very large audiences. They reside in a parallel universe to the literary novels and short stories that I also write and publish in the traditional manner.  These works are ‘born digital’ – they can’t be replicated on paper.

I first began taking my computer and the internet more seriously as teaching, writing and publishing tools in 2001, when trace – an online writing community – set up an internet-based creative writing school and asked if I would teach a course. This led to a year as a research fellow atNottinghamTrentUniversitylooking at new forms of story-telling. I’d been writing fiction for a long time, and had published four novels and two books of short stories, and I’d also been working hard learning how to write for film; when the time came to think about creating work for a computer screen, I found it necessary to call on my experience of all these forms.

The novel developed through a particular set of sociological circumstances and technological innovations, not the least of which was the printing press. As the Gutenberg era draws to a close, new, digital forms are emerging, from the hypertext branching narrative (a kind of electronic choose-your-own-adventure story) to e-poetry (where words morph and shift across the screen) to stories that respond, via software, to the reader’s rate of breathing.  In the past two years we’ve seen a real explosion of innovation in both form and delivery: as smartphones and tablets proliferate, writers and technologists are working together to try things out, to experiment.  Just as publishing and bookselling are evolving because of digitisation, literature itself is beginning to change.

Among the works I recommend to people exploring the new literature is Welcome to Pine Point by the Goggles. This is a remarkable piece of digital creative non-fiction: an interactive documentary about a mining town in northernCanada that no longer exists. Co-produced by the National Film Board of Canada, it takes as its starting point photo albums and high-school yearbooks, and looks at the town through its former residents’ memories. It’s a moving piece of work. One of the things I like best is the way it uses text on the screen: in our image- and media-saturated world, there’s something very primal and poignant about this.

Another excellent example of the genre is Window by Katharine Norman. It was the winner of the 2012 New Media Writing Prize – an award that has run for three years and is itself a useful guide to digital innovation. This piece was inspired by John Cage, and makes great use of sound and image – as well as text – to take us on a journey through the world viewed through a single suburban window over the course of a calendar year.

Among my own works of digital fiction, I’m particularly proud of Inanimate Alice and Flight Paths: A Networked Novel. Inanimate Alice tells of a girl who wants to be a game-designer when she grows up; in the existing four episodes (six more are planned), the level of interactivity in the story increases as Alice’s own skills as a designer increase.  Flight Paths is the story of what happens when two lives – those of a London woman and a Pakistani man who has stowed away on an aeroplane – collide dramatically in a supermarket car park. I created both these stories in collaboration with Chris Joseph, a talented web artist; I wrote the scripts, while Chris built and programmed the pieces. Inanimate Alice is now used in schools and universities around the world as a teaching tool.

Because I have a career as a ‘traditional’ writer as well as a fancy, new-fangled www.writer, I’ve spent the past decade waiting for these two parallel realms to merge – for traditional publishers to begin to think beyond the book and the e-book and into new territory.  Don’t get me wrong: I love books, and long-form prose narrative is very dear to my heart as a writer and as a reader.  But I like these new forms as well, as a reader and as a writer, even if no one knows what to call them.

I’m passionate about the possibilities for literature in the digital age.  We live in a time of great change – the way we read is changing, the way we write is changing, literature itself is changing.  But our deep need for stories will never go away.

Kate Pullinger’s most recent novel was The Mistress of Nothing (2009).  She is Professor of Creative Writing and Digital Media at Bath Spa University, and editor of the Writing Platform, a new website offering advice to writers and poets on digital transformation.